Brandon—A Case of Procrastination
1. Presenting Problem
Brandon is a young man in his mid-twenties who was self-referred for an assessment and subsequent coaching due to struggles keeping up with his college studies. Immediately after high school, Brandon chose to leave academics and enter the workforce. He pursued a number of rather low-skill jobs including food service and construction. About two years later, Brandon opted to return to school and follow a STEM studies track. Despite his aptitude for the material he found himself having difficulty completing assignments and studying for exams in a timely fashion.
Rather than risk being put on academic probation, Brandon decided to explore the nature of his problem and learn how he could achieve his future career goals. In addition to a pattern of procrastination, Brandon also experienced considerable self-criticism and disappointment over his behavior. It made no sense to him as to why he didn’t simply get work done. In previous employment situations he was a conscientious worker, though he was somewhat uneven in his attention to punctuality.
2. Background Information
Brandon grew up in a close, large intact family with many siblings. Both of his parents were described as hard working individuals though his family was not particularly affluent. Neither his father nor mother had acquired college degrees, nor was it common for his siblings to go off to college. As a child, family life was somewhat chaotic and Brandon had recollections of chores that never quite got done and his parents being upset because the house was frequently very messy. Because there was so much to take care of, Brandon was often given the responsibility of looking after younger siblings or managing household duties. Not surprisingly, as he got older, Brandon often complained about being told to do more than his fair share, and he would sometimes try to avoid especially objectionable jobs.
School was a mixed bag for Brandon. Socially, he was generally well-liked and had many friends. Scholastically, his performance was below his potential. This was noted even before high school, and Brandon acknowledged he was driven by the interest of the moment. If a subject appealed to him, he would work at it. If he found it boring he would be half-hearted in his investment. Interestingly, in the working environment Brandon had been more reliable in performing his job responsibilities, though not always punctually. While Brandon reported few if any arguments with parents about his academic performance, he admitted that they were concerned about his future direction. They were very pleased with his choice to go to college but fearful of his execution. However, he assured them he would do all that was necessary to succeed.
His first semester went reasonably well. But, from the start of the second semester Brandon began displaying the same problem of not getting all his work done on time that he had shown years ago. He acknowledged feeling despair and being disappointed in himself. However, rather than remaining passive and letting his future goals slip away, Brandon decided to be proactive and seek some direction to move forward in his life.
3. MindFulChoice Assessment
Brandon completed the MFC Initial Screening and his profile indicated a moderate degree of inattention. He identified himself as often bored and frequently being restless, looking for something beyond his current situation. In addition, Brandon acknowledged that at times he will resist having to be the “responsible one” in favor of diversions that are self-gratifying. While he would never engage in serious risk-taking that could lead to harm, he might not pay attention to possible future consequences of his actions. In many ways, Brandon’s presentation was not very different from many young men of his generation, still looking for an anchor and purpose in their lives.
I asked Brandon to describe to me what would happen when he was given a course assignment to complete outside of class. He described having an initial reaction of problem-solving – trying to organize the work in a coherent fashion and plotting out the steps to get it done. It would give him a good feeling to determine how the task could be accomplished. However, after this response Brandon would pull back and distract himself with another activity that was more appealing. He would continue to “find” diversions until the deadline was very near and then cram his efforts to complete the assignments as best he might. Brandon admitted that he had never really developed any sensible study skills to help him keep his focus on the objective at hand. Nor did he have much self-confidence in his capacity to succeed.
In order to assess Brandon’s focusing capability, I initiated a regimen of study parameters that would organize his time efficiently to see if he could in fact use structure to overcome his procrastination. He would keep a daily log of the work to do, the time each task would require, when in the day he would attend to each task, what percentage of the task he set out to finish, and an end-of-the-day review of his performance. Brandon was agreeable and thought this structure could help him stay on track. For the first two weeks Brandon reported success in getting work done. He was mostly compliant with the regimen and more work was being completed. After three weeks Brandon announced that he had slacked off and was not adhering to his study format. He explained that he was again finding diversions and losing attention to his objectives. I began to review how he could regain his focus when he said to me, “I know. We talked about this before,”
I immediately asked Brandon to explain that remark. What exactly had he been thinking right before he said those words. He shrugged and said there was no particular thought behind them. I suggested to Brandon that in fact there was a very powerful thought in his mind. I shared with him my association to his comment: At the moment that we began to reassert how he could be successful again his instantaneous reaction was to think, “What’s the point? I’ll really never be able to get it right”.
After a moment, Brandon acknowledged that he had been thinking along those lines. I offered Brandon a theory to illuminate the essential impediment to overcoming his procrastination. His thought process had a built-in bias. As soon as he envisioned success in his activities, there would reflexively be a contrary thought telling him he cannot succeed, so he might as well give up. It was this thinking pattern of failure-linked-to-goal-attainment that perpetuated his ineffective behavior by initiating self-doubt and helplessness. To avoid the discomfort from those thoughts, he would engage in soothing behavior for as long as he could. We discussed the impact on his life of this thought pattern and how it fueled his inattention and avoidance of self-improvement. Brandon agreed to engage in remediation with me to change his way of thinking and acquire the tools he could use to keep from being distracted by dysfunctional thoughts and feelings.
4. MindFulChoice Tools
How we think not What we think— Mind Focused Coaching involves more than finding the negative thoughts that can interfere with our functioning. It is a metacognitive method that highlights not the content of people’s thoughts, but rather the way people think. There are many different patterns to how we think; they are not equally appropriate for every situation. MFC illuminates the patterns we use and when, so as to find the optimal thought process for any given situation.
Primacy of Executive Function - When people are faced with stressful situations we impulsively fight, flight, or freeze. We usually think this only happens in a life-threatening circumstance, but it occurs in every stressful situation. While it is natural and helpful to us in some situations, it is important for us to realize that this response pattern is hardwired and can be influential in every aspect of our lives. In many cases, it does more harm than good. When something like self-doubt activates the fight/flight/freeze response, the avoidance of discomfort takes precedence over reason and curtails the ability to effectively manage a stressful challenge. Mind Focused Coaching is predicated on the idea that the mind’s executive function can identify and contain the impulsive urge that blocks us from acting in our best interest.
In this moment there is only ONE choice - A common pitfall in the process of change is looking too far down the line and making forecasts about your ability to move in one direction or another. Mind Focused Coaching promotes the idea that at any given moment in time, you only need to consider one choice, and no forecasting or predictions are of value. Brandon’s procrastination was fueled by his focus on his vision of the future and that produced discomfort and avoidance. Learning that no future choice or outcome exists until THIS choice is made can keep attention directed to the task at hand and forestall anxiety and disappointment.
- B) Remediating Principles:
C— Instead of worrying about what might happen, focus on what is there right now!: Brandon presented himself having a problem with putting things off and not getting work done. The actual problem was his cognitive bias that caused him to project negatively into the future rather than maintain his attention on the task at hand, generating anxiety and avoidance. By replacing his inattentional autopilot with intentional focus, MFC helped Brandon keep his goals in sight, addressing only the work priority in the moment.
J – We are bound by the limits we assume for ourselves: People set a lot of limits for themselves. However, setting limits for yourself makes the decision for you that you won’t be able to do something. It’s like choosing to only swim in the shallow end of a pool. When we believe negative things about ourselves, or assume that we can’t do things, we keep ourselves from achieving everything we could. Brandon’s bias imposed a limit on his potential for success. By recognizing that we are not “born losers” – we are “born choosers” – Brandon could expand his self-assessment and recognize the unused potential within him.
X— We construct our own reality: Every choice we make involves following one choice and excluding the other since all choices are binary. Every choice includes one option and excludes the other. So, by including and excluding options we are constructing the reality we live in. One’s past does not have to determine one’s future. Brandon had constructed a reality in which failing was an inevitability. With the tools he acquired from MFC he could appreciate the power of the present to make a different set of choices with a different outcome.
5. MindFulChoice Intervention
Brandon was caught in a loop of unused potential because of cognitive bias, self-doubt, and reluctance to accept mature responsibility that expressed itself in procrastination and impaired motivation. His past experiences of resentment over having to sacrifice his needs in favor of his parents’ needs only exacerbated his perception that life was never going to go his way, so why bother trying. With MFC Brandon was able to understand the bias in his perceptions and thinking style and consider the validity of his self-doubt. By expanding the limits of his possibilities, Brandon redefined his personal destination and diminished his fear of responsibility.
He found out how he could be happy in his life without the past intruding on the present. Brandon saw genuine choices he had not fully considered before, which increased his motivation to disengage the procrastination. He began to see avoiding work completion not as a refuge from discomfort, but as an impediment to a better life. The structure that he needed to achieve did not come easily as it was contrary to his automatic behavior. Nevertheless, his new perceptions and way of thinking made it easier to resist immediate gratification in favor of long-range advancement.
Brandon’s results were not without setbacks. Learning to live a Mind Focused life requires time and commitment. Even so, he persevered and his school performance improved as the semester went on. During the course of our work together Brandon reassessed his future goals and chose a career path that suited his people interests more than engineering. He has developed an interest in entrepreneurial pursuits and is devoting his energies to building his own business in personal services. At our last contact Brandon acknowledged that he puts off fewer tasks than in the past.
7. Comparison to Other Methods
Mind Focused Coaching utilizes a metacognitive approach to remediate errors in execution that are due to impulsivity and inattention. Brandon’s procrastination resulted both from responding to the fight/flight/freeze impulse and his inattention to the cognitive bias that dominated his thoughts. With the assistance of the MFC tools derived from the principles of Positive Psychology, he was able to be “present” in his thoughts and actions and not driven by the past.
Other methods might have focused on negative thoughts or on his anxiety and why he felt it in certain situations that involved responsibility. Other methods may have uncovered some ambivalence over unmet needs from childhood that perpetuated resentment and self-defeat. However, they would not have taught him how he could overcome the urge to repeat the past and wait for something to make things right. With MFC Brandon took charge of his life and redefined himself and his way of managing inattention and impulsivity.